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Altered Fire Regimes
Fires can alter and benefit landscapes in several ways: stand regeneration, successional maintenance, creation of landscape patterns, and increased primary and secondary plant productivity (Niemi and Probst 1990). The prairies of southern Michigan were dependent on fire as a periodic disturbance event that killed pioneering shrubs and trees and also promoted growth of forbs (dependent on timing of fire). Fires also maintained savannas and oak and jack pine barrens by killing shrubs and seedlings and subsequently providing an open understory, preferred by species such as eastern box turtle and Karner blue butterfly (Albert 1994).
Fire is an important mechanism for maintaining a mosaic of forest stands with varying age, size and shape characteristics (Haufler 1990). For instance, high intensity fires will kill large standing trees, providing standing woody debris for cavity-dependent wildlife, whereas less intense (cooler) fires will remove or suppress mid-level canopy structure and improve forb and grass stands, creating an open savanna-like structure. This open structure is critical for the regeneration and persistence of dry forest types dominated by shade-intolerant tree species, such as oaks.
When the natural fire regime has been greatly altered or suppressed due to human safety concerns, prescribed burning can be used as an effective management tool to mimic the role of wildfire. Shrublands can be invigorated and maintained with fire to benefit species such as Bluebird and Sharp-tailed Grouse. Burning old fields controls saplings and woody vegetation, and improves grasslands for use by nesting wildlife. Forest openings can be manipulated with burns to benefit more than 150 wildlife species. Upland nesting cover used by pheasants, waterfowl and songbirds will remain productive if periodically burned. Cattails and sedges are returned to vigor by an occasional burn. Lastly, fire will kill off less tolerant species such as maple and basswood, allowing oak to compete more successfully in a hardwood stand (Sargent and Carter 1999). Without fire, many of these species will be affected by loss of habitat.
Conservation Needs to Address Altered Fire Regime Threats:
Land, Water & Species Management
- Develop opportunities for use of prescribed burns on private lands
- Identify opportunities where prescribed burns can be implemented to restore the natural fire regime of landscape features
- Implement best management practices for conducting prescribed burns
- Implement management actions (e.g., mechanical removal, herbicides, timber sales) that best mimic the effects of fire on those lands where fire management may be restricted
Law & Policy
- Develop and pass 'right to burn' legislation
Education & Awareness
- Increase public awareness and knowledge of the value of prescribed burning as a management tool
- Incorporate fire management into local land-use planning efforts in landscapes where fire is an important component
Research, Surveys & Monitoring
- Document or model historic disturbance patterns of fire and assess their potential for restoration
- Continue research on the effects of prescribed burns on ecosystem processes
- Develop and test best management practices for conducting prescribed burns, especially in landscape features which were historically dependent on this disturbance, but where burning is currently seldom used
- Test alternative methods for their ability to mimic the benefits of fire